Are We Becoming a Nation of Cowards?

Over at NRO, I read about the sad and ugly denouement of the Penn State football scandal — the scandal where a former football player didn’t have the courage to seize an elderly child rapist he caught in the act, where a football legend didn’t have the courage to even ban an old friend from campus, and where administrators looked the other way rather than confront ugly truths.  It’s just one story, yes, but there are many other stories.

We have a cultural “elite” that doesn’t merely shun wartime military service (“shunning” would at least indicate they gave it a moment’s thought), the possibility never even crosses their mind.  And so, in a nation of more than 300 million, far fewer than 1% have risked life and limb in our fight against a great evil.

As the Catholic Church stands united against the HHS mandate, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, vanishingly few Protestant institutions — in a land where Protestants far outnumber Catholics — have done anything more than issue strongly-worded statements.  “We’re all Catholics now?”  Hardly.  If we were all Catholics now, the Obama administration would confront a true tidal wave of litigation and opposition.

On an individual basis I speak again and again with Christians who refuse to take action to protect religious liberty and to preserve the integrity of the Gospel — not out of principle but out of fear, fear of lost worldly reputation, fear of lost ministry jobs, and fear of rejection.  We’ve lost more religious liberty battles through surrender than we ever have in court.

When it comes to our personal lives, the numbers simply do not lie.  We are incapable of denying ourselves virtually any pleasure — from the food that makes us fat to the sexual indulgences that lead to abortion and illegitimacy, to the easy and cheap divorce that cauterizes the wounds of a failing relationship — we want what we want when we want it (and may the government facilitate our desires and mitigate the consequences).

Too many of us substitute real virtue for virtuous thoughts, thinking that holding uncompromising political beliefs makes them better than their friends and neighbors even though they actually behave no differently than the people they despise.

Of course there is still courage that comes from America — I’ve seen it with my own eyes in the deserts of Iraq — and we may ultimately have enough courage to muddle through this dark and dismal period of our cultural history, when we have institutionalized the slaughter of children to facilitate our sexual appetites, but I increasingly fear that we’re losing virtues that we won’t regain until, like the children of Israel, we are confronted with the consequences of our own sin.

I’m writing in large part not just to decry the trends I see all around me but also to chastise myself.  How many times have I taken the easy road rather than the right road?  How many times have I given in to self-indulgence and modeled not courage but expedience and perhaps even cowardice?  Yesterday I wrote about the greatness of our nation, but that greatness is fragile — as fragile as my own character, and that is very fragile indeed.

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  • Jay Watts

    Thomas Sowell once said that our attempts to turn our nation around reminded him of the attempts of the late Roman citizens to revitalize their once great empire. He said they were the pitiable efforts of a group of people trying to rebuild something they never could have created to begin with. It was a matter of the differing character of the founders versus the later civilization. I was working on a blog post today called “The Cult of the Easy and Our Need for Scorn” when I saw your piece. I don’t know if I will actually finish it because it was born out of a bad mood and sometimes writing is just therapy for me. Reading about the generation that founded America and the character of the people that fought and worked to make us what we once were reminded me how far away we were from them in our basic constitution. GQ just ran a story about a male porn star sharing the grotesque nature of his employment in graphic detail as if it was normal that highlighted this difference all the more. We seem to have lost a vision for what truly meaningful living can be or even that what we do with our time is important to the world around us. If our lives are devoid of impact we might as well pursue the easy satisfaction of our prurient curiosities? After all, facilitating the hiding of our lives shameful details at any cost may be the single greatest skill of my generation. I appreciate your post.

  • Max Lindenman

    Plenty of observers would say we always have been. In one scene from Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain has a lynch mob storm the house of a Colonel Sherburn who’s just murdered an annoying but harmless drunk in cold blood. Sherburn, who’s still armed, laughs in the mob’s face and says, “I grew up in the South and have lived in the North, and the average man’s a coward.” H.L. Mencken returned to the same theme: that most people will only take the law into their hands if they outnumber their opponent about 500 to one; “mob man” became his shorthand for a person who was a coward not only physically but also intellectually. Like Sherburn, Mencken would have put most people into that category.

    The generation who served in the Second World War may have romanticized their military service once they were back home and safe, but on the whole, Americans have regarded it with ambivalence, at best. Historians like to remember the sacrifices made by the troops at Valley Forge, but they’d also do well to remember the desertions, which were endemic, and for that matter, the lootings of the locals, which don’t suggest an especially keen interest in taking a worthy opponent in a square go.

  • David French

    “We seem to have lost a vision for what truly meaningful living can be or even that what we do with our time is important to the world around us.”

    I agree with that statement, Jay. Nice comment.

  • David French

    I’m wary of idealizing the past, Max, but I think it’s fair to say that an enormous number of social factors show decline . . . not from an ideal, certainly, but from a baseline that was far from ideal. As we live in relative prosperity with signs of decline all around us, I’m reminded of the motto of the Starks of Winterfell.

    Winter is coming . . .

  • Bruce Epperly

    I think the compromise on health care was quite rational and Christianly defensible – as Paul says in Galatians, there cannot be two classes of people in the Christian community; perhaps there shouldn’t be in terms of health care coverage either, regardless of the bishops’ scruples about this issue. The Galatians solution would be that you can affirm your law but not make it a burdensome hardships for others. Those who don’t wish to use contraception don’t have to, those who do can…this would be the Pauline approach.
    The whole question of opposing contraception or IVF to begin with as a moral or religious issue is worthy of conversation on another level. Perhaps Protestants “caved” because at the end of the day most don’t see contraception as an issue at all, even the conservatives. Perhaps, the conservative Protestant objection was politically – get Obama – rather than ethically motivated. At least, they have never seen it as much of an issue. If so, caving was the only morally defensible Christian response.

  • Tiff

    The issue isn’t even whether people choose to use and pay for their own contraception; what the Church is against is forcing people who find it morally reprehensible to pay for and provide it for others. The real issue is this law takes away people’s religious liberties. I think it’s naive to think that taking away “only one” religious liberties wouldn’t then open the flood gates with the government taking away many more if this is allowed to happen.

    On a separate note, if someone has a moral objection to abortion, then they need to take a good, hard look at why they support hormonal birth control which can be abortifacient.

  • Agkcrbs

    Thank you for another provocative essay.

    What cowardice and ease have going for them is that they make an excellent backdrop for braver acts. The easy choice is always the default. Heroism wasn’t designed for the masses — how could it be the trait of many, when it’s created in lonely opposition to the many? A culture’s glorification (or delusions) of ideals can wax and, now, wane, but how many who have lived and died surrounded by unchallenged ideals have really owned them? It may be that this age of license has not so much corrupted us as it has revealed us. It takes a “dark and dismal period” to show us the lights, dim or bright, that we could never have seen shining in the daytime. Only in the face of disaster does courage bloom.

    But if courage wasn’t, at least our democracy was designed for the masses, right?

    Yes and no. It was an experiment from the beginning. The test requires our personal and civic participation, but there were no divine guarantees of permanence written into our founding documents. Democracy is self-government, which always allows for self-destruction. There are two possibilities at any time: either our government and rights, in whatever degree of recognisability, will persist for another generation, even another year, or else they won’t. We can trace the many transformations and enumerate the amendments that have already taken place.

    Have we gained steadier ground, or are we losing strength? People have always perceived decline, but then again, people have always undergone decline from their establishments of legendary nobility. People die, stars die, and civilisations and cultures also die. Governments are formed in providence and preserved a little while by the dutiful until their collapse, and replacement. Today we don’t just ‘perceive’ our decline; it screams in our face. It’s obvious everywhere we look, and wide open in the social polls; not just us, but the whole world shivers under a spreading shadow, a dissolution of long-held, fundamental ethics. The people are gleefully handing themselves over anew to idolatry, worshipping social fashions, bowing down to lusts, and praying to supposed ‘learning’ and ‘science’ — a scalpel for angels but a dagger for devils. The social climate is warming, and our ancient, frozen moral reserves are melting away. Give our blessed elderly a few more decades to make their exit, and the rising tide of selfishness will turn today’s great mountains into still-great islands. Though it seems early to me, we may be in our autumn.

    But it was always going to end up like this, with lines drawn and unequal sides forming. Though we properly wish and fight for it, the victory was never to be found in the perpetuity of our civilisation, but in the fortitude of our own integrity — so our greatest heroes pass away with no fanfare. If we have read the Rulebook, then we know how our Scorekeeper keeps tally, and it’s not like we do it. If we mourn the decline of our earthly freedom, we do it in blindness. We should rather be celebrating our freedom all the time, because the fog of innocence is beginning to lift, and yesterday’s morality, a far-off body grey in the hazy distance, is approaching and splitting into black and white before our eyes. Those are freest who can choose the right without confusion; and in a cowardly world, the opportunities to rise to courage are all the more abundant.

  • Dean Speir

    I believe that the great Libertarian essayist Jeffrey Snyder addressed this at some length in his piece, “A Nation of Cowards,” in the Fall 1993 issue of The Public Interest

  • PDN

    As the Catholic Church stands united against the HHS mandate, filing lawsuit after lawsuit, vanishingly few Protestant institutions — in a land where Protestants far outnumber Catholics — have done anything more than issue strongly-worded statements. ”We’re all Catholics now?” Hardly. If we were all Catholics now, the Obama administration would confront a true tidal wave of litigation and opposition.

    Perhaps the Protestants feel the Catholics sold them down the river by working with Obama on a ‘National Health Care’ program to begin with. Protestants are much more against socialism than Catholics. I have heard many Protestants say they find it ironic that after the Catholics sent all sorts of accusations at those who did not agree with “Social Justice” and “Universal Health Care”, primarily because it puts government in charge, are surprised when relying on government means exactly what the Protestants said it would mean —– government control (remember, many Protestants even objected to President Bush and his “faith-based” community initiatives). Yes, Protestants support you, just as we support Israel and all religious freedom (it stems from our foundation: the Bible – Joshua 24:15 ) — but it brings a sour taste when Catholics complain about our support for them, when they have continually chastised us for our lack of ‘good will’ or ‘compassion for others’ because we do not believe our good works should stem from the government or social justice, but rather from following Jesus, not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing, and from a charitable heart.

    We will help you fight the battle against government intrusion and religious freedom, but we don’t expect harsh criticism from those who never help us when we battle against government intrusion.

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